With Yahoo Sports and NBC Sports partnering once again this season, we’re bringing back the Mixer format of 2018 and combining NBC lead writer/editor Joe Prince-Wright with our talisman Doug McIntyre in what we hope will be a fixture of this site (and your reading routine) going forward. Off we go!
Joe Prince-Wright: Doug, always an absolute pleasure to chat. Let’s get straight into one of the most intriguing storylines of the first four weeks of the season: Manchester United. How do you assess their start to the season? Is there a clear playing identity and plan under Solskjaer?
Doug McIntyre: The pleasure is mine, Joe, thrilled to be working together on this.
Things sure looked good after United’s first game. But it’s gone all downhill since that season-opening thrashing of Chelsea at Old Trafford. United look fitter and thus more capable of playing Solskjaer’s high-octane game, which they have done so far. But I’m not convinced that quality-wise their squad is better than it was last year, despite the nine-figure acquisition of central defender Harry Maguire. I’m also not sure this squad has the stones; the way the Red Devils equalized late in the match against Crystal Palace through youngster Daniel James (who has been perhaps their brightest light) was reminiscent of the never-say-die “Fergie Time” teams Solskjaer starred on under Sir Alex. The way they let Palace go up the other end to snatch a stoppage-time winner at the Theatre of Dreams most definitely wasn’t.
JPW: It was looking rosy early on, wasn’t it? There’s no doubt United have improved defensively. Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have made a huge difference after their big summer arrivals, but not sorting out the biggest transfer saga of the summer could be their downfall. Paul Pogba is still a United player, largely against his will, and the midfield area is a problem for United. Scott McTominay is digging deep each week but his partnership with Pogba has yet to flourish and there is no true defensive-minded player to shield the back four. Until they sort out their midfield balance, United’s hopes of a top-four finish are slim.
OK, so, USMNT fans will obviously be itching to discuss how Christian Pulisic has fared in his first few weeks as a Chelsea player in the Premier League. My assessment? 6/10. He has played well in fits and starts, has adapted okay to the extra physicality of England’s top-flight and has looked solid enough in Chelsea’s attacking unit. But my biggest issue with his play so far is that he’s playing it a little too safe. That is probably understandable, as he wants to ease his way into life in England.
But you cannot afford to do that at Chelsea. You just can’t do that. Soon Willian, Pedro and Callum Hudson-Odoi will be breathing down his neck for a starting spot and Pulisic has to take more risks in the final third and try to take players on. When we take a step back, let’s remember he will only turn 21 next week. He is adapting to life in a new country, city and at a new club. Chelsea, a club notorious for not having patience, have to have some with Pulisic, Frank Lampard and all of the other young stars being chucked into the fold at the same time. Doug, not sure what you think, but my overall feeling on Pulisic so far in the Premier League is this: good, but not great.
DM: I think that’s a fair assessment. And to your point, is being merely good good enough to stay in the lineup at Stamford Bridge? That said, things could be worse. When Pulisic’s move from Borussia Dortmund was announced last January, I wasn’t convinced he’d play much early on. I didn’t think then-manager Maurizio Sarri was a great fit. But Pulisic lucked out with Lampard, raving about his relationship with the club legend. And it’s clear Lampard trusts the American, starting the soon-to-be 21-year-old in each of the Blues’ last four matches across all competitions so far.
At some point, though, Pulisic will need to repay that faith with goals and assists. His slick pass set up Olivier Giroud in the UEFA Super Cup loss to Liverpool last month, and he has been involved in the buildup to other strikes. But he still hasn’t scored or registered a primary helper in Premier League play, which has not gone unnoticed. With Hudson-Odoi and Willain both returning to full fitness following injuries, Pulisic will at some point need the numbers to cement his spot in Lampard’s first-choice XI.
JPW: Anything else caught your eye so far, Doug? I’ve loved the emergence of Teemu Pukki at Norwich, and I really think at least one of Leicester City, Everton or West Ham will finish in the top six this season. Brendan Rodgers has the Foxes flying and Çağlar Söyüncü has been a revelation replacing Maguire, while Haller looks the real deal for the Hammers as his hold-up play brings their talented attacking midfielders into the game.
DM: I like Leicester but don’t sleep on Palace. I think they have as good a shot at a top six finish as the Toffees or Hammers. I know we’re only four games in, but t’s pretty crazy to see Chelsea in 11th place, Spurs in ninth and Man United ahead of both despite their own struggles. Pukki’s transition to the Prem has been remarkable. The 29-year-old Finn has never scored at this clip anywhere else, including at big clubs (Celtic, Brondby) in tiny leagues (Scotland, Denmark). Sure, he was the Championship’s Player of the Year last season, but to continue to be that prolific against top-level defenses says more to me about Daniel Farke’s system at Norwich than anything else. This might not be a popular opinion, but I think the Canaries stay up.
And while we’re on the subject, I’ve been surprised by Sheffield United. I think they survive this season, too.
JPW: Have the opening weeks changed your opinion of the title race? Man City unbeaten, Liverpool perfect. It’s all looking rather similar to last season at the top. Roberto Firmino has been fantastic for Liverpool, but Jurgen Klopp’s side haven’t got out of second gear … and they’ve won all four games. That’s worrying for the rest of the league.
As for City, I’m concerned about Aymeric Laporte’s injury. He is clearly their best center back and is out for the next few months. I’m not convinced John Stones or even Fernandinho at center back are able to hold things together alongside an erratic Nicolas Otamendi. Aside from their perfect start, I think Liverpool’s title bid was given a huge boost by Laporte’s injury.
DM: No doubt. It looks to me as if Liverpool is playing with a chip on its shoulder this season, as they should. I know they had the same singular goal of winning the title last season, but I have to think the way it ended has made that challenge an obsession. The Reds are also playing with a swagger befitting of the European champ. I picked City to pull off the three-peat, but the way Klopp’s lot has bossed the last month, I’m starting to question that decision.
JPW: Arsenal are always a huge talking point. Are the Gunners good enough defensively to mount a serious challenge to finish in the top four?
DM: They’re good enough to challenge, Joe. I think they have a better shot than last year, when they missed out by two measly points. That said, I’m not sure Unai Emery’s side is defensively sound or dynamic enough going forward to actually pull it off.
JPW: If you had to pick the three teams that will be go down, who would you select?
DM: Watford have been dreadful, so that’s an easy one. But Norwich, Villa and Wolves haven’t been as bad as the table suggests, so I’ll go with Brighton and Bournenmouth. What do you think?
JPW: I’m going to stick with my preseason prediction of Brighton, Sheffield United and Norwich City, but I’m really worried about Watford. They are perennial fast starters who fall apart in the second half of the season. Having changed managers already, all is not well with the Hornets who were rather silly in not strengthening their defense this summer.
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